Nuclear reactor closings in the US continue to roil the energy industry
In the face of growing safety problems, cheap natural gas and the rising use of renewable energy sources, aging nuclear power plants are closing down across the US, raising questions about the future viability of nuclear energy production.
The Entergy Corporation is the most recent company to announce closings. Entergy plans to shut down the Fitzpatrick nuclear power plant on Lake Ontario near Syracuse, New York, and the Pilgrim Nuclear Power station near Boston, Massachusetts, before the end of this decade.
The two plants typify some of the problems facing the US nuclear energy industry, says Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland, and a former nuclear engineer.
“They’re both single reactor sites. They’re both very old, which means it takes a fair amount of money to keep them going,“ Makhijani says. “The cost of power generally has been going down while the cost of operating these old reactors has been going up, and now those lines have crossed.”
Because operating costs keep rising at these single reactor plants, the tendency to economize on maintenance is great, which creates potential safety problems, according to Makhijani.
“The boiling water design [at these plants] is similar to the Fukushima plant in Japan and we’re all aware of the vulnerabilities of that design,” Makhijani explains. “They don’t have the kind of robust secondary containment that, say, Three Mile Island had, which is really what saved us from massive releases of radioactivity during that accident in 1979.”
Had the Three Mile Island accident occurred at either one of these plants, a major city, Syracuse or Boston, could have been contaminated, Makhijani says.
“What happened at Fukushima was a hydrogen explosion that blew apart those buildings,” he explains. “There was also a hydrogen fire and explosion at Three Mile Island, but because it had that extremely robust thick concrete containment building, the fire [stayed] on the inside, the pressure increase was withstood by the containment building and there wasn’t a massive release of radioactivity.”